So you want to get into composting?

Why is everyone getting excited about composting?
Thanks to a defunct mining industry and soft impermeable clays, Britain has for a long time enjoyed cheap waste disposal through landfill. But with EU directives cutting the amount of waste that goes into landfill sharply over the next few years, things are changing fast.

During 2004/05 Britain recycled nearly 23% of household waste. Although this is up from nearly 15% the year before, it is still one of the lowest rates in Europe.

The government is committed to raising this to 25% by 2005/06.

Under EU targets, the government will have to reduce the amount of waste going into landfill by 25% of 1995 levels by 2010, by half by 2013 and by 65% by 2020.

Regional authorities have been told to set targets for cutting the amount of waste going into landfill and increasing the amount recycled.
Kerbside collections for at least two types of recyclable material (typically paper/cans and green waste) from every household in the land will be in place by 2010.

So how does this affect farmers?
Some 7m tonnes of garden waste is produced each year. At the moment only 20% is composted, but that figure will rise inexorably as the EU rules tighten.

All this material has to be composted and then either spread on farmland or sold as garden compost and it’s farmers who are best placed to do the composting.

They have the hard standing on which the green waste can compost down over a 10-16-week maturation period, the machinery for stirring it around every so often and access to land on which it can be spread.

No surprise, then, that between 2002 and 2004 the number of on-farm composting sites rose from 218 to 325 and the amount of waste recycled rose from 130,000t to 250,000t.

What do farmers get paid for dealing with this waste?
Local authorities pay between 15-30/t to the farmer/processor. There may also be scope in future for farmers to act as processors for the 6m tonnes of kitchen waste produced each year, though the regulations are much tougher for this sector.

What are the main hurdles to be overcome?
Locating a suitable site will be the biggest challenge; it will be at the discretion of the county planning authority to decide what activities may be carried out at the site. So make early contact with the county minerals and waste planning

You’ll also need planning permission and waste management licensing, as well as meeting water protection, animal by-products, catering wastes, and health and safety legislation.

The Composting Association, DEFRA and the Environment Agency (see box at end of article for contact details) can give guidance on site suitability, design and management.

Is an environmental impact assessment needed?
This depends on the nature, scale and location of a proposed operation. Generally on-farm composting applications don’t require an EIA but you can get what’s called a screening opinion from the local planning authority to determine whether an EIA is required by the regulations or not.

Will there be a public consultation?
Yes. The planning authority is obliged to consult those who have an interest in, or could be affected by, the proposals.

How long will the process take?
Applications can take up to a year, permission for a materials recycling plant up to two years and for an energy-from-waste plant up to 10 years. Always talk to your local planning officer before submitting an application; they will be able to point out its merits and shortcomings and you can rectify the latter before putting in the application itself.

Will I need a waste management licence?
Yes, unless you obtain a Para 12 WML exemption from the Environment Agency and have registered it with the regulatory authority.

How do I know if I need a full WML or a WML exemption?
It depends on the type of waste you are dealing with, its risk to human health, how much waste you intend to take in and how you intend to dispose of it. The Environment Agency will be able to advise you on this.

What are the limitations of a WML exemption?
It permits the operator to compost up to 1000cu m of green waste at any one time. This equates to 500-600t, depending on the content of the waste supplied (which could vary from grass clippings to tree branches). Allowing for a maturation process of 10-16 weeks, a single site can process 3250-5200cu m (1625-3120t) in a year. The finished compost must then be disposed of on your own farm – if you want to sell the product off the farm, you’ll need to hold a full WML.

You’ll also need what’s called a paragraph seven exemption to spread compost on farmland. The maximum application rate is 250t/ha, but nitrate loading limitations restrict that to 35t/ha and NVZs will reduce this still further. In addition, agricultural or ecological benefit of applying compost to the land must be demonstrated.

What will the cost be?
A WML Para 12 exemption is free, but the operator is expected to meet all costs associated with inspecting the site, gaining planning permission and the consultants’ fees incurred. A separate Para 7 exemption is required for every 50ha (120 acres) of land to be treated. This costs 546 and has to be renewed annually at 412.

The cost of a full WML will depend on the size of the activity for which the licence is being sought. The application will cost 4000-5000 plus, if successful, you’ll pay an additional 1500 in subsistence charges annually. Total fees to establish a full WML site can easily exceed 20,000.

How much will getting planning permission cost?
Depending on the level of local objection, surveys deemed necessary and consultants’ fees, you can expect to spend between 5000-25,000.

How much capital do I need to invest in a site?
This depends largely on the size of the site, the waste to be composted and what machinery you intend to purchase. Charles Course, director of Material Change, a nationwide composting, shredding and screening contractor, estimates that a site suitable for 10,000t will require 150,000-250,000 in investment.

This includes a kerbed and sealed impermeable surface (concrete or tarmac), a lined lagoon for effluent collection, a weighbridge, a site office and security.

A licence to process 30,000t a year can require an investment of 500,000, but this does include the cost of purchasing a shredder.

Can animal by-products be composted in on-farm open windrow systems?
Although some categories of animal wastes and catering wastes can be composted, none are permitted in open windrow systems.

Do I need to prove my financial security?
Currently no financial security needs to be demonstrated for an exempt site. For a full WML site the operator needs to demonstrate financial security of 35/t for any material on site.

Can I apply effluent to farmland?
The spreading of surface water run-off and leachate on agricultural land is permissible under a Para 7A exemption. This must be registered with the EA before spreading can take place.

An exemption will only be granted if the operator can prove its application will be of benefit to the land and that no muck or slurry has become mixed in.

Will I need any special certificates of competence?
You will have to demonstrate that the site will be in the hands of a technically competent manager before getting a WML.
This can be demonstrated by either holding a relevant certificate of competence from the Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board (WAMITAB) or being registered and seeking to obtain one.

What about Healthy and Safety?
There are H&S regulations that relate to composting activities. Training in the use of personal protective equipment is mandatory.

What can I expect to charge in gate fees?
Gate fees – the only source of income for the site operator under a WML exemption – range from 15-30/t depending on your location and the agreement you reach with the local authority.

Sites in the southeast, where landfill is scarce, can expect to receive higher rates than those in the north.

What if I receive wastes that can’t be composted?
You will almost definitely receive some wastes that are not degradable, the most common being plastic. In most cases disposing of this waste will be your responsibility. Remember landfill costs 35-45/t depending on location plus haulage.

When entering into a contract with any supplier of material for composting always ensure you include a clause which allows you to reject any load containing excessive contamination and that the associated removal and disposal costs are met by the supplier.

What will contractors charge?
Material Change charges about 6/t, depending on the nature of the material and the contract.
This depends on the desired size of end product. Costs range from 700-1500 a day depending on requirements and throughput.